Brown brick goes by on both sides. Wet asphalt, reflecting sky, lights my way through this alley. The smack, squeak rhythm of my shoes skips a beat as I hang a right toward the back door of Misty Windows Porn Shop.
A blanket lies under the store’s back doorsteps like a crumpled tortilla.
The brick and asphalt around me echo their agreement.
I wear the polyester pants and pressed shirt around here. This badge on my chest, these epaulets on my shoulders make me responsible for blankets left behind.
God I hate this shit.
Reaching under the wooden stringers, I grab a wad of grimy fluff. I yank. The bedspread doesn’t move. Something’s wrapped inside. It’s probably a bum.
I can’t tell which end his head is at. He’s buried beneath the folds. I press with my hands. My fingertips stop at something rubbery inside.
Fat over muscle. Yep. It’s a person.
This bum needs to wake up. I shake some part of him. I say, “Hello, get up. This is private property.” Still. He doesn’t groan or shiver. I’ll have to unwrap him.
I peel the blanket back. Fermented rot hits my nose. It’s the perfume of homelessness: Eau de Whiskey Sweat.
A foot pops out near my face. Shit. Wrong end.
On the other end, beneath the folds, two blue eyes stare at me blankly. They belong to my best friend Gabe.
Wait. Nuh uh. This isn’t right. Gabe’s not a bum. He died six months ago in a car wreck. He was cremated a hundred and seventy six days ago.
“Hey,” I’m whispering and looking around. “Gabe. You’re alive. Wake up. We’ve got to talk.” I touch his face. It’s cold. It’s not breathing.
I look again.
Gabe’s hair was never long like this. And it was blonde anyway. He never had a beard either.
No. This isn’t Gabe at all. But that doesn’t matter.
I just touched a dead guy.
Jumping back, I wipe my hand on my pants. But my polyester leg is already greasy with my sweat. Now I’m double-slimed with my perspiration and his dead guy juice. “Son of a…”
Suddenly, mid-swear, I realize I need to do my job.
Stepping back, turning away, I unclip my cell phone from my belt and put it to my ear. The smell of whiskey lingers on my hand.
A woman’s voice says, “Hello, 911. What’s your emergency?”
“Yeah, my friend…” Wait. I’m going nuts. That’s not Gabe. “I mean. I’m a
Security Officer out on Seventh Street.”
“Okay. You’re a security guard. If this is about graffiti, or skateboarders, you’ll have to call a non-emergency line.”
“No. No. I found a dead guy.”
“Okay, so the person isn’t breathing?”
“Does he or she have a pulse.”
“No, damnit. He’s cold as the fucking concrete. He’s just lying in a blanket beneath the Porn Shop steps.”
“Stay calm, Mr. Security Guard. I don’t know where you are yet. What’s the address?”
“69 7th Street.”
“I’ll send someone as soon as possible. Sit tight.”
“Okay. Okay. Thank you. They should hurry.”
My cell phone falls to the ground. I wipe my hands on my shirt this time.
I’m breathing like I ran to the 911 call center and back.
The word “crazy” comes to mind.
I actually saw Gabe’s face on that bum. Not thinking, not caring, I sit on Misty Window’s back steps just above the corpse.
Really. Finding a dead guy doesn’t matter. Seeing Gabe’s face is what’s important to me. I’ve seen and heard him too much lately. He haunts me every day.
See. People never die conveniently. When they croak, they never have their lives wrapped up neat like this bum in a burrito below me.
Gabe had a lot of loose ends. Some were mine. Some were his.
He shouldn’t have died when he did. I never had time to forgive him. So, now he walks, and talks inside me. And even though I sometimes forget what he did for a day. I will never be okay again.
Chapter 1: Waves
I walk a few miles, in circles, over hot blacktop every day. With each step, the air sucks more sweat from my pores.
It’s like some weird kind of osmosis.
Shit is this city’s flavor. Shit from the streets, car Shit, greasy food Shit, and good old-fashion human Shit roll into one here. Whether someone wants to smell or taste it depends on how they like to breathe.
Any dog would tell you crap tastes better than it smells. I’m no dog though. I’m a fish. So, me, I just suck it in.
Sometimes I can’t breathe at all though.
A land whale swims by on 7th street. Its sheet metal skin blasts a wake of wind over the sidewalks as it goes.
The words, “Minneapolis Transit” pass in front of me like red barnacles stuck to its silver skin. The whale’s movement sends a flurry of gutter trash into the air. The wind cools me, and coats me with dust.
Still. I don’t feel relieved. Instead, I cringe as a Port-O-Potty smell seeps into my nostrils.
Shit. I’m standing in a puddle of piss.
This smell. This ammonia and salt, slowly cooked on asphalt, flushes the memory of Gabe out of my mind. It makes denial of anything but what’s happening right now much more possible.
I’m glad for that.
Slow-simmered piss particles slime the back of my throat. From there, they dribble down into my stomach.
I’m gonna be sick.
Bile rises from my gut. I shut my throat to keep from hurling. I shut my eyes. The nausea pushes me out of me. For a little bit, I look down on myself doubled over, standing in the 7th street parking lot.
Some people call this an out of body experience. I just call it trying not to puke.
Mind out of body, I feel the world moving in waves.
The urge to puke goes away slowly. I’m still not all the way back in my body though. Really. I’m never there anymore. I’m always floating somewhere just outside my head. And for no good reason I look down the street.
A little girl with overalls and pigtails, like a fabric softener commercial in the flesh, holds her Labrador puppy.
The same bus that passed me a second ago passes her. She watches its reflection roll by in a shop window. A sunlit smile lifts her cheeks as she sees something in the shop she likes.
The puppy leaps out of her arms.
She tries to grab it before it darts into 7th street. It’s way too late for that though. The shark-toothed tread of a Dodge pickup mauls her friend and spits the meat out. She screams, and cries, and tries not to look at its guts spilled all over the street.
I want to look away too. But I can’t. I watch, fascinated, like a serial killer at a horror movie marathon.
Fifty feet in front of the stopped truck, a hunchbacked elderly woman toddles out from between two cars. She’s not looking. And I wonder if, by accident, the puppy’s death saved her life.
Then again, I guess everyone wants to believe things happen for a reason. Everyone searches for some kind of story to connect the bad things that happen in their lives.
Most of all, I guess I just want my life to be about something. Now. It means Nothing.
See. Me. I have a problem. I feel life’s liquid movement. I see there are no single causes. I taste the salty water of the world. And every day I sink toward the bottom as waves of change wash away everything I’ve ever known.
Meanwhile. This imaginary sea slowly chokes me.
If I’m a fish, then I’m caught in a net. And I’ve been in this net, and this ocean,for far too long.
If I’m a fish, then my fisherman has been particularly mean. She let me fight until I was too tired to swim. And if life is a sea, then the currents have recently been way too strong for far too long.
Drowning has taken most of my life. Thinking back, it began in Colorado Springs when I was a kid.
I guess I was maybe four or so when Dad came home for the last time. He had a frown on his whiskers, and he wouldn’t look at me. No. Dad just went to Mom that day.
Mom hugged him hard. Her red hair fell over his shoulders and hid his face forever. All I could smell was peaches. Mom always smelled like peaches. She pressed her face into Dad’s shoulder. And they held each other so tight I thought they would become one person.
Really. That was the last time I saw either of them.
Mom cried and cried. Her body shook with each sob. And for the first time, I thought of waves, white-capped, smashing against a rocky shoreline. Then, some bastard called fate shoved me off a plank.
I fell right in.
Like a tsunami, the front door of our small apartment flew open and knocked my Mom and Dad to the floor. They fell on top of me. A swoosh of air and a thump on the back of my head swept me under like a riptide.
Everything went black and blue. A current dragged me along a dreamland ocean floor. As far as I know, I was unconscious. But the world never stopped moving in waves. Reality became a sea. And I still see it that way to this day.
My biological parents were arrested for something. I still don’t know what. Dave and Mary, who have been my Mom and Dad for 17 years, claim they don’t know either. But I know they know. They just won’t tell me.
Anyway. I stopped caring enough to ask anymore.
When I was four years old, social services shipped me up north, far from Colorado, to an alien land of sauna summers and freezer winters.
Minnesota: Where the air is so humid you either float, or sink in it. You either drink up the ‘sea of ten-thousand lakes’ like a glass dipped in the fountain of youth, or you choke on its mushy uncaring.
As for me, I can’t tell where the surface of this place is anymore. I look for open air. I find myself in deeper water, with Nothing to spare. I’ve sunk to where dark eats the light.
I lost all my will to fight.
These often-arctic waters freeze all the things I love.
Now, underneath the ice, only my memories keep the bluish black away.
With Gabe gone, I think of Colorado all the time. For me, that state is a Mecca of lost dreams. I was only four when I left. But I have a memory of a memory of an idea that people were friendlier there. My mind tells me the air was cleaner, and the weather was better near the mountains.
Then again, I don’t really know. Still. Those dreams are my diving gear in this murky air.
I’ve been staring at my thoughts for too long. The Dodge drove away. The girl with pigtails weeps on the curb. The remains of her furry friend lie limp, next to her.
I don’t have time for this. I have to keep walking. I’m on patrol.
I go through the parking lot beside Misty Windows Porn Shop, which is just next door to Jim’s Plumbing. The owners of these two prestigious establishments hired me to keep the bums, hookers, and taggers at bay.
Also. I make sure the people who park their cars in the 7th street lot pay their nine dollars.
There’s an alleyway between Misty Windows and Jim’s Plumbing. I’m headed there now. It’s the worst smelling spot in the city. So, I cover my nose with my undershirt ahead of time.
In the alley, a bicycle with a handlebar basket sits, propped against the dumpster down the way. Going to the dumpster, I try not to step in the piles of bum shit everywhere.
Garbage spills over the edges of the big, blue bin in waves. I hear someone scrounging around in there.
I rap my knuckles against the side of the dumpster. It sounds like a gong.
A bum’s dirty face pops up beside the mountain of trash above the dumpster rim. He squints at my brass badge and white shirt. Fear and disgust roll through his wrinkled face. Then, he flops over the edge with a bag full of cans in one hand.
On the ground, he wobbles back and forth. He throws his free hand out to balance himself. He’s wearing a pair of gray khakis and a dirty orange bathrobe. His voice is like a sand blaster.
“Sorry,” he says “I wasn’t doin’ nothin’. Just tryin’ to collect some cans, ya know?”
He shouldn’t call me sir. I hate that.
I see a shoreline in his face. The waves bash him against the pavement of this city every day. His skin is like the rippled sand exposed on a beach at low tide.
He left life, and reality, a long time ago.
“No problem,” I say to him. “It’s alright. I don’t care. Just don’t throw shit out of the dumpster. And don’t leave your crap and piss in the alleyway.”
“Huh?” He leers at me with one eye. His sour breath hits me from two feet away. “Oh. Well. Uh. Thanks sir, I ‘preciate it. I promise you won’t see me again. That’s for sure!” He flashes his gums at me.
“But, I just said…”
“I know, I know sir, I’m leavin’ right now, Thanks.”
The bum moves past me, throws his cans into the bicycle basket, and pedals away. Sighing, I try not to breath through my nose.
As I leave the alley, I think about the first time I met my wife.
About ten years ago, I had just graduated from high school. I wasn’t much for college. But I liked college girls. On weekends, my roommates and I went up to the U of M to party. Most of us just got drunk and acted like idiots. Gabe was the only one who did anything worth mentioning later. He was the only one who ever scored.
See. The waves rocked Gabe gently. All his life, he was like a tourist on a cruise ship, sailing away.
I want so much to be that way.
Anyway. When we were younger, women fought over him. He wasn’t smart. He wasn’t suave. Neither was I. But he had confidence and good looks.
That made all the difference.
My wife used to tell him he should be a movie star.
Once, while we were partying at a sorority house, I saw Gabe grin at a brown-eyed girl with long blonde hair. This was my future wife Kim.
That moment comes back to me almost every day. It’s how I cope with the fact that they fucked each other for so long.
Gabe’s grin was like a sunset reflected off the warm waters of the Caribbean. You know. The kind you see in beer commercials. At the party, he used that smile on Kim. And with it he swept her into paradise with him.
Later on that night, I saw them making out on an old, green couch. I imagined they were resting on the white sands of some beach. I imagined, for a second, that they’d found some way to be perfectly satisfied.
And there I was, floundering in the sands at low tide. In other words I was wasted. Meanwhile, I dreamt I was him because I wanted Kim.
But he had her.
He always had them. He had everyone. Including me.
See. Gabe had an attitude that could turn wherever he was at into his own paradise. He made everyone else a part of it too. Including me.
Vicariously, I was Gabe for that minute. He rode the waves into Kim, around her, through her, and away from her without looking back.
Yes, for him she was some chick at some party that he screwed.
Me. I couldn’t forget the softness of her eyes. I couldn’t get passed the way her face glowed.
Me. I fell in love with her that night.
The morning after the party, Gabe and I rode back to Plymouth in my car. Endless dirty snowdrifts drifted by. The sky was gray too.
Bored at the wheel, I looked over at him.
He didn’t seem to feel the wind whipping back and forth from our open windows. Taking long drags from a cigarette, he stared somewhere else, past anything that I could see.
I said, “I bet you had some fun last night,”
“Yeah,” he said. “Fun doesn’t cover it. She was amazing…like no other girl I’ve ever done before. It was fucking epic.”
I didn’t know what epic meant. So, I just sat there for a bit.
Soon, I got impatient and asked, “So’d you get her number?”
“Yep. Not gonna call her back though.”
“I thought you said it was ‘epic’.”
“Well it was,” he said. “But you know I don’t wanna’ be with a girl right now. There are lots of chicks I can get a piece from. You know?”
“Yeah, I know. You’re a lucky son-of-a-bitch.” I shook my head at the windshield.
“True,” he said. “You could be too, if…”
I should have listened. He almost gave me the secret to his happiness just then.
Instead, I interrupted. “Nuh uh man. I appreciate the confidence booster and all. Things are different for me though.”
“Yeah, how so?”
“I mean I like to screw as much as the next guy. You know. But every time I want to just do a girl, I can’t.”
“What do you mean, you can’t?”
“I just don’t have—whatever the hell it is. You know, that killer instinct, or whatever. Besides, only fat chicks wanna go out with me.” I frowned in self-pity.
I was talking about all women. But I was thinking about Kim.
Gabe shook his head and tossed his cigarette butt out the window. “Whatever dude,” he said. “Just tryin’ to help. I saw the way you were lookin’ at that chick though. You want her number?”
“What? Now that you’ve done her? Yeah, just throw her number my way. I’ll take your used-up sluts.”
“Calm down brother. I’m just tryin’ to hook you up. Hell. I’ll throw the number away.”
Gabe glanced my way every few seconds. He stared at the road in-between, waiting for me to say something.
I stared at the barren trees going by. I rubbed the steering wheel. I tapped my left foot against the floorboard. I did anything to try and not give in—to try and not ask for that number.
I remembered her eyes just then. And my resistance fell apart.
Putting my hand out, I said, “Alright, gimme the damn number.”
“Why didn’t you just say so in the first place?” He laughed.
“Shut up dick, gimme the number.” I tried not to smile.
“Alright. I’m just playing with you. Here.” Gabe slapped the piece of paper in the palm of my hand. Then, he flipped me off for his trouble.
I said, “Quit looking at me all smug and shit. You don’t even remember her name.” I stuffed the paper in the front pocket of my jeans.
“So what? It’s there on the paper.” He shrugged and lit another cigarette.
These are the times I never seem to forget.
I called Kim, we dated, we made love, loved, then fought, and somehow we felt it was all worth being together. So, I asked her to marry me.
Really. Looking back. Marriage was a last-ditch effort to save our relationship.
I ignored the fact that Gabe was still screwing her. It was pretty obvious to everyone else. And it would’ve been clear to me—if I wanted to see.
Instead, I closed my eyes. I never wanted to believe Kim and Gabe would do that to me.
I leave the alley. I turn right towards the porn shop’s back door. I stomp up the creaky wooden steps, under which I found the bum this morning—where I saw Gabe again this morning.
I reach into my pocket for the door key. This damn humidity makes me feel sticky all over.
Eventually, I find the key.
I slide it into the lock, and jiggle it to the left. The door is unlocked anyway. That’s not good.
I step in and flip on the lights. Inside, the hallway to the peepshow girls’ dressing room doubles as storage space. Boxes line the walls on both sides. At first glance, it looks like a regular storeroom.
Look at the labels on the boxes though. “Dollar Dildo’s,” “Just Past Eighteen,” and “Penis Projectile Pump,” are the first ones I see.
Believe it or not, even this place gets boring. Even THIS becomes routine.
I reach behind me to lock the door. A single wave washes over me, leaving a kind of ache inside.
The tide of Gabe’s memory has gone out for now. Nothing is left over.
I wind my way through a corridor of boxes, toward the door that leads to the peepshow girl’s dressing rooms. Shaking my head, I shove the door open. This one should be locked too.
There’s a peep show girl inside getting dressed. She’s got to be the guilty one.
I walk into the dressing room. Jenny Davis jumps in surprise.
She’s pale like Snow White. She’s naked like Eve. Her breasts bounce like silicone gumdrops. Two red-sparkled high heels cover her feet.
I hear a song in my head: She’s off to see The Wizard/The wonderful Wizard of Oz. Jenny’s profile is sleek. I stare at her until she turns around and glares like a scolding mother. Her hair shakes like black-beaded curtains as she says, “Jesus fuckin’ Christ Jeff. What the hell are you doing. You scared the fucking shit outta me.”
It’s too late for Jenny not to notice my wandering eyes. Now that she’s seen me, her lips are stuck somewhere between a smile and a snarl. Either way, they’re like two apples waiting to be eaten.
My head starts to shake. I’m nervous as hell. I look down at the leopard print carpet. And I want to say something. What was it? The words won’t jump off my tongue. Instead, they’re wrapped around it. They’re choking it.
Someone once told me the tongue is the fastest healing organ in the body. I believe it. After a few seconds of staring suffocation, my tongue works again.
I say, “I’ve told you girls to lock those doors.”
“I know, and I’m sooo sorry.” Jenny’s is feminine hygiene commercial soft. Too bad she swears like a trucker most of the time. “I’ve just had a really busy day,” she says.
She turns back to a mirror lined with light bulbs. She paints on a coat of black lipstick. She doesn’t care that she’s naked, or that I could’ve been a rapist.
All the peep show girls are that way. I used to turn my head and pretend to be respectful. But they don’t give a crap. Still, out of habit, my eyes fall to the mock leopard skin again.
Jenny’s different than the other girls. I’ve known her for years.
I want to tell her that she could get out of here. She could be and actress, or a model. I want to tell her that she’s perfect. She’s wasting her life as a peepshow girl. But I never tell her any of that. I—just—can’t.
My lungs have filled with the salty brine of Chickenshit. Instead, I nod my head toward the mirror. “Sorry for bothering you,” I say. Keep the door locked from now on.”
“I will sweetie. See you around.” She wiggles her ass. Oh God, how she wiggles her ass.
I nod, walk past Jenny, and open the door to the peepshow room.
It’s dark except for four peepshow cases. Four girls sit in glass aquariums, looking bored and trapped. Three of them read. One of them glares at the glass in front of her.
I know all the girls on display. Cherry, Blossom, Sugar, and Honey are their names. Blossom is the one glaring.
I pass Cherry’s curtain-lined cube first. Cheap cologne and disinfectant almost cover up the smell of semen nearby.
Cherry doesn’t look up as I pass. Her eyes flow left to right across the lines of some book called War and Peace.
You could knock someone out with that book if you threw it at them. Or, maybe just read them to death. God I hate reading. I think I’d rather glare like Blossom.
Passing Sugar’s booth, I hear the sound of a mop swishing across the floor. I look past the red privacy curtain. Fred the jiz-mopping janitor squints at me. His face is paste-covered granite.
I return his stare. He goes back to work.
I part the curtains to the front of the porn shop. Meanwhile, the sound of Fred’s mop licks my eardrums like a cat’s tongue.
Someone once told me that Misty Windows used to be a convenience store. It’s easy to believe. It’s the right size. Ten aisles, with waste-high shelves, make up most of the store. I could easily see the shelves lined with snack foods and car-care products.
Now. These shelves are lined with edible lingerie, spermicides, and porno films.
Gil the clerk sits on the counter at the front of the store. Vibrators and weed bongs lay in the glass case below her butt.
Like I said before. Even all THIS gets to be Nothing.
Day after day, Gil wears a brown, knee-length skirt with black fishnet stockings. Her big black and white striped shirt hides part of her manliness. Splashes of rouge soften the square-ness of her jaw. The hoops hanging from her ears draw attention to her cheap curly wig.
Still. You can tell she’s a transvestite from fifty feet away.
I’m standing in front of her. But she’s reading a Cosmopolitan magazine. She doesn’t notice me.
“Hello,” I wave my hand in front of her face. “I’m Jesse James. I’m here to rob the place and kill you.”
She looks up from her magazine and rolls her eyes.
“You should pay attention,” I say.
“Why?” She asks. Her voice is corn-husky. She says, “Everyone that comes in here falls into two categories. They’re either freaks, or geeks. And none of them—trust me, I know them all—would hurt little old me.” She twirls a lock of her wig. “They’re all just a bunch of weirdos looking to get off.”
“Yeah. They’re weirdos alright. That’s why you should pay closer attention. Wouldn’t want any of you ‘ladies’ getting hurt.”
“Whatever. Go away, Jeff.” She goes back to reading.
Walking out the door, I sigh. A school of cars swims by on 7th Street.
A kid sings at me from the window of his passing Saturn: “Rent-a-cop, rent-a-cop, whatcha gonna do? Whatcha gonna do when they come for you?”
He gives me the finger.
I want to chase after the kid. I want to shout something at him before he gets too far away. But I don’t. I never do. I have too much Chickenshit.
Anyway. It’s best to shrug it off.
I yelled at some guy a few weeks ago. He called the Better Business Bureau. Still. For once, I wish I could be my own hero.
Going over to Jim’s Plumbing, I imagine that I chased the guy’s car down until he was stuck at a red light. I dream I pounded his face in until he promised not to sing anymore.
Really. I just want to tell him I’m a person. I’m not an asshole.
(Then again, everyone’s an asshole.)
I want him to believe my job is worth something. Why? Because I can’t anymore. Me, my job, and everything else are Nothing.
I slip my master key into one of the plumbing shop’s door locks. I did the right thing to keep my job. That’s all that matters. I open the door.
It’s Sunday. No one’s inside.
Jim’s plumbing is built of brown bricks. Water stains make parts of the brick a darker brown. Brown carpet makes up the floor.
The carpet’s stained too.
Nobody has ever bothered to fix the leaky roof. Now, parts of the ceiling panels, frozen in wavy wrinkles, are peeling away. White dust and bits of rotten paper sprinkle the trampled carpet.
The shop reminds me a little of Glen Lake Elementary School in Plymouth. That’s where Gabe and I went to school. Maybe that’s where my kid will go too. The teacher’s desk in the center of the room adds to the effect.
My own desk sits in the back of this room. It’s made of two file cabinets, and a piece of plywood. I grab the fold-up chair in front of my plywood and plop down in it.
The chair’s legs are uneven. I bounce back and fourth on it while I fill out my Daily Security Report:
“1600/Went on tour/Found transient in alley dumpster/Asked him to leave premises/Back door of Misty Windows unlocked/Secured lock/All secure.” Below that, I write, “1630/End of Shift.”
I reach down to unlock the file cabinet to my right. Now. I remember the Special Incident Report I filled out earlier today. It’s sitting on the corner of my plywood, staring at me.
Shit. I have to proofread it.
“At approximately 0910 hours, I saw a large comforter lying underneath the back steps of Misty Windows. I tried to pick the blanket up, but someone was in it. I tried to wake the guy, by shouting at and shaking him with my hand. That did not work. After unwrapping the guy, I saw he was a Latino man, between the ages of 30 and 40.
In : Stories
Tags: journey journeyman james jeff sanders madness psycho gabe kim personalities colorado minnesota
blog comments powered by Disqus